“I Capture the Castle” by Dodie Smith – a family which is middle-class but impoverished find their life changing with new neighbours

I always enjoy a story which is written in diary form and one of the best ever is Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. It’s been a favourite book of mine for years and bears rereading frequently. It was written in 1946 by an author now better known for also writing 101 Dalmatians – a very different story.

The diary is written by Cassandra Mortmain over a summer which is probably in the 1930s who lives in the titular castle, a crumbling ruin, with her father, stepmother, foster brother, younger brother and sister. Her father had written a best-selling novel but has been unable to repeat the feat and the family live in genteel poverty and behave with a certain amount of eccentricity. Into their established lives come the new inhabitants of a nearby estate and especially the young men of the family and immediately the family seize on the opportunity to try and make an avadtagous marriage..

This is very much a coming of age story but Cassandra is no naive innocent. She and her family have to endure her father’s poor behaviour and also their reduced circumstances. As she works out how to get some money out of these new rich acquaintances she also needs to get her father writing again and find a man for her sister – whilst doing all this she falls in love, or maybe not. The story takes its opportunity to laugh at the pretensions of the literary class as well and the way in which Cassandra gets her father to write a new books and the reaction to it are actually very funny.

This book is exquisitely written and the narrative voice is strong and unique. The way of life of the impoverished middle-classes is beautifully portrayed and compared with the more free and easy Americans. Cassandra is a strong young woman who is actually holding this fractured family together without realising it. You do realise how hampered the family are by the expectations of their class and the restrictions of gender. The author brings the story to a very satisfactory conclusion.

This book always slightly reminds me of Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm but it is not quite as cynical as that book and there are also some similarities to Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited although the theme of the story is very different. It can certainly easily hold its place with them as a modern classic whilst also being an enjoyable read.

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